Think of Rarotonga as Polynesia 1.0 — a South Pacific paradise that hasn't been “upgraded” with flashy luxury resorts. Though home to capital city Avaura, the largest of the Cook Islands still feels small and authentic. There are no traffic lights here and just one main road rings the entire island, so you can do a complete 20-mile circle by public bus in about an hour. It’s an easy way to sightsee independently — and perhaps stop for lunch at a small beachfront restaurant or resort — before arriving back to port for all-aboard time.
What We Love
The Dancing: No one shakes their hips and beats a drum like the Cook Islanders. Watching a performance of the island’s fierce “hura” dance is a highlight of any visit.
Tangaroa: Carved wooden statues of this Maori god of the sea are everywhere. You’ll even find him on the back of the Cook Islands dollar coin. (Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is on the front.)
Best Known For
The Lagoon: A reef encircles the entire island, creating placid aquamarine waters perfect for snorkeling or diving.
The Needle: The youngest of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga has a lush, mountainous interior. One of landmarks is this 1,355-foot-high granite spire, also known as Te Rua Manga. The best way to see it is to book a cross-island trek with Pa, an intrepid medicine man with sun-bleached dreadlocks and generations of island knowledge.
Punanga Nui Cultural Market: Head to this cluster of stalls in Avarua to buy lustrous black pearls and hand-dyed cotton “pareus” (sarongs). The market is open daily, but you'll find the largest selection on Saturdays.
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Who It's Best For
Serenity Seekers: If you want to be one with nature and get a glimpse of old-school Polynesia, this island delivers.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
There Will Be Bugs: Pack some bug spray — there are mosquitoes aplenty here, especially during the warmer, rainier season from December to March.
Donna Heiderstadt is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Coastal Living and Islands.